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    Auto thefts drive up crime

    Property crime for the city is up 11 percent this year, goosed by a 43 percent jump in car thefts.

    By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 17, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A 43 percent increase in car thefts led to a rise in overall property crime in St. Petersburg during the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year.

    That helped fuel an 11 percent increase in overall crime so far this year. The good news is citywide violent crime dropped 1 percent.

    "St. Pete's a safe city to live in," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "The chances of you getting killed in St. Pete, unless you're involved in a bad domestic relationship or the drug trade, are minimized."

    There have been 50 percent more homicides this year -- 15 -- compared to 10 killings during the first half of last year. Many of this year's homicides have been committed by people who dated or lived with their victim. No one has been killed in more than a month.

    St. Petersburg's overall 15 percent increase in burglaries, thefts and auto thefts has police believing a slow economy is forcing people to trade property for cash.

    But M. Dwayne Smith, chairman of the criminology department at the University of South Florida, said finding reasons for crime trends is like predicting weather.

    "There's so many factors that influence crime," Smith said. "It's really hard to concentrate on any one particular cause, and oftentimes, what makes it even more confusing is we don't know the cause until several years after it's occurred."

    Property crime goes up when the economy is both good and bad, Smith said. High employment means fewer people are home to guard their belongings.

    "Good times stimulate more property crimes because there's more out there to be had," he said.

    St. Petersburg police believe the city's auto theft problem is linked to its juveniles. Car thefts have surged 43 percent in the first six months of 2002 compared with the same period last year.

    There have been 1,271 car thefts through June compared to 888 during the first half of last year.

    Especially alarming to police was a sharp hike in auto thefts between May and June, from 190 to 274. Police say that is mostly due to juveniles who are off from school and stealing cars to joyride.

    Detectives also link the increase to a pattern of vehicle thefts and arsons that began in mid June. About 30 cars have been set ablaze since then. Police arrested a suspect last week.

    "We make arrests, and it's amazing," said Jeff Manning, auto theft detective. "The rate starts going down."

    So far in July, there have been 85 car thefts.

    The city's number of violent crimes, which includes homicides, sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assaults, dropped 1.1 percent through June of this year.

    There have been 23 fewer violent crimes through June of this year compared with the same period last year. Sex crimes increased nearly 8 percent, while homicides rose 50 percent.

    Nearly half of this year's 15 homicides involve some type of relationship conflict, though they cannot be directly attributed to domestic violence. Other motives include drugs or fights.

    "I don't have any sense that the violence level has gone up at all," homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz said. "We see peaks in a given month or a few month period that sometimes, on its surface, may give that indication, but these things just become cyclical."

    -- Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

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